Man with medical flu mask. Photo: Flickr/Marco Verch Man with medical flu mask. Photo: Flickr/Marco Verch

Counterfire interviewed a care worker from a home in Yorkshire about the Covid-19 issues that are affecting these workplaces across Britain

What is it like working in a care home during a pandemic?

There’s anxiety for all of us working in care homes at the moment. We are aware that we’re about to face the full force of the virus within homes and we do not feel truly prepared. None of us have experienced anything like this. We are workers in residential homes, not nurses, so we don’t have any medical professionals on the premise and have not dealt with illness like this before. It’s a lot of responsibility to have. The staff have been very good at ensuring they wear what PPE we have and maintain hygiene because we recognise that we not only have to protect the residents but also ourselves and our families. Although we have PPE and guidance on how to deal with the virus, we are aware that it often spreads regardless of the measures we put in place, so in some instances we are fighting a losing battle. 

What was the strain on the care sector like before the pandemic? Has the pandemic put more pressure on the sector (in terms of staff, resources etc)?

Prior to the pandemic having a lack of staff has always been an issue within the care sector. However we usually have bank staff to cover shifts or agency workers if we are desperate. At the moment, many of the bank staff are not wanting to work in the home due to the risk and we are not allowed to have agency workers. Staff are taking time off work due to symptoms of Coronavirus. The impact of this has been huge. Just having one less member of staff can affect the entire running of the home. It effects response times to residents and prevents us from being able spend longer periods of time with them. This is so important to ensure that residents are not only well physically, but also emotionally and socially. The residents cannot see their families and need interaction with staff to prevent distress and worsening of mental health conditions. We are also dealing with more illness separate from Coronavirus as we are less likely to send residents into hospitals unless completely necessary.

The care sector has been subject to a lot of privatisation and casualisation – how has this affected day to day activity? For example, a lot of care homes employ staff from agencies who are precarious workers/ on zero hour contracts. What are conditions like for these workers?

Being privatised means that we don’t have many guidelines in place for situations like this. We needed extra support because we haven’t ever dealt with infection and illness like this. Care home staff are not required to have formal qualifications before they enter the job, so many of them are not competent in infection control measures. Unlike the NHS, we don’t have a large bank of professionals to help us. We really feel like we have been left on our own to deal with this. 

Do you feel safe at work? Are you given sufficient PPE? Are managers/bosses sympathetic, for example if you have to take time off work etc.

The staff do not feel safe at work because we understand that if the virus does get into the home we are still going to have to deal with those infected in a very close proximity. We do have some PPE such as sleeve covers, aprons, shoe covers and visors (which were donated by the public) and some single use masks. We do not have enough masks to only use them on a single use basis. This means they are not effective most of the time because we are wearing them for such long periods. In order to use the masks correctly, every member of staff would need at least a hundred per shift. The managers have been very good and are trying to keep staff morale up and show consideration of our wellbeing as well as the residents, but there’s only so much they can do. The situation is so difficult because we can’t just stop working if it comes into the home.

The public are extremely supportive and we’ve had a multitude of cards, letters, flowers and chocolates left on the doorstep. It’s really been nice because at the beginning of the pandemic we felt like we weren’t really considered to be a part of the frontline in the same respect as the NHS. However we are about to experience the virus at full force and put ourselves at risk and on top of that we doing it for minimum wage most of the time. 

How do residents feel? Do they feel safe? 

The residents have already suffered greatly due to the pandemic. We have lots of residents that suffer with dementia and they cannot understand what is happening. They do not know why they can’t see their family, why they are being isolated in their rooms or why staff are wearing full PPE around them. Obviously this is causing them a lot of distress and agitation. The residents that do understand that we are experiencing a pandemic are facing the reality that they might not be able to see their friends, children and grandchildren again if the virus gets into the home. We’ve had residents celebrate diamond wedding anniversaries and 100th birthdays without their families. We’ve had some residents lose family members and been unable to attend their funerals. We had had an influx of calls from families arranging DNR forms as the families also recognise that they may be unable to see their loved ones again. 

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